PENN YAN — Driving through the Yates County countryside, our van from the Boys & Girls Club of Geneva virtually overflowing with excess baked goods from Freihofer’s on North Exchange Street, we received a text message that these breads and sweets would not be needed by the food pantry we intended to visit.
At the same moment, we noticed a long line of Mennonite horses and buggies, a scene I had come to expect on Sundays, but this was a Thursday. Then we remembered it was Ascension Thursday, a special day for the Mennonites and, in the distance, we spied a gathering place where many of these horses were headed.
With a van full of great, but perishable breads, cookies, cakes and donuts, we wended our way among the horses and talked to the property owner. “Could they make use of these breads and things?’’
The answer was a definitive yes.
Mennonites are, by reputation, extremely self-reliant as a group, but when the coronavirus hit, the sinking tide lowered all boats, including Mennonite farms and businesses that rely heavily on the non-Mennonite economy for sales and service contracts. Many had to be feeling the impact, but it is not clear how the wider non-Mennonite community might gauge any needs within a people who are, by definition, a bit insular.
Seeing the quick and egalitarian distribution of these products among this extended Mennonite community on Ascension Thursday however, it occurred to us that this increasingly large and important population, a big part of the Finger Lakes renaissance, could benefit from some of the public concern that was fueling charity across the wider community as the virus crisis spread.
Our club — with three vans, 300 families and a lot of public support — had expanded its reach. With much of our membership hunkered down at home, we had begun distributing milk and cheese from Cornell, baked goods from Freihofer’s, bimonthly fruit and vegetable boxes as well as more than 3,000 breakfasts, lunches and dinners each week. We jokingly referred to ourselves as the Finger Lakes Express as our supplies allowed us to reach far into Yates and Wayne counties with regularity.
And now we found ourselves stopping regularly at a Mennonite site, leaving the goods, but learning a bit, too, with every visit.
The Hoover family, the Ascension Thursday gathering hosts, work a 50-acre farm a few miles west of Soldiers and Sailors Hospital. The family of 10 lives off a metal shop and from what they grow and sell from a roadside stand you would not describe as on any sort of main thoroughfare. The fact that any customers can find them a half-mile south of Route 364 on Briggs Road is magical. However, they do.
This year, as the coronavirus crisis has continued on, we have been able to watch as the Hoovers’ early seedlings, planted in greenhouses in March, made their way to the fields and were joined by traditional plantings of corn, beans, tomatoes, sunflowers, melons, water melons and a variety of squash and peppers.
The dry spring, perhaps a challenge to some, is perfect for this farm. It has a spring-fed pond that allows drip irrigation and the ability to keep things hydrated while the hot, warm weather spurs fast growth. Week after week, the fields took shape and brought the family closer to the bounty, and hopefully income, of harvest time. Slowly, the sap from the family trees was boiled off and filled maple syrup jugs for the stand, joining cookies baked in the home, honey harvested from family hives and the occasional quilting project to diversify family sales.
Starting corn early in greenhouses and replanting to the fields, we learned, will put ears on the stand weeks before others, a competitive advantage. They may have sweet corn by the Fourth of July.
One of the Hoover sons fabricated a row-making machine that helped the family greatly expand its plantings this year and, with the great growing conditions, the family may face the challenge of finding new customers for this bounty. No one is sure what effect the virus crisis will have on the summer farm economy.
Watching the evolution of a growing season and understanding the importance of sustaining a family from 50 acres is, in a way, a drama all its own.
So when the virus crisis displaced food chains and made breads, vegetables, fruit, milk and cheese available in the Mennonite areas too, one could appreciate why this sharing was so appreciated. To people who do not regularly travel to Wegmans to pick up oranges from Florida or South America, a bag of oranges in May is a treat.
And when the only vegetables you usually eat are the ones you grow, a bag of fresh carrots in early April can help at nightly dinner.
But for the most part, there are as many similarities between the Mennonites and their non-Mennonite neighbors.
Keeping growing teenagers fed is a universal challenge. Freihofer cakes, breads and chocolate donuts, are gifts from heaven. Many Mennonite parents watch their cholesterol and prefer low-fat milk; the children prefer Cornell’s whole and chocolate dairy.
In the end, the disruption of this coronavirus season has taught many lessons. Food, even among those who produce it for a living, is a universal gift.
At the Boys & Girls Club, we are honored to have become the delivery agents between and among so many.